Grandparent visitation applied to biological father's adoptive parents

Under Tennessee's Grandparent Visitation Statute, grandparents may petition for visitation with their grandchild under a number of circumstances, including where the child's father or mother are divorced, legally separated, or were never married to each other.

However, in some cases, the very definition of "grandparent" may come into question, as the Tennessee Supreme Court case of Lovlace v. Copley demonstrates.

Regular contact with the child

The divorcing parents were married at the time of their minor child's birth. The parenting plan incorporated into the final divorce decree designated the mother as the child's primary residential parent because of the father's history of drug addiction during the marriage.

Later, the mother remarried while the father was incarcerated. The mother's new husband attempted to adopt the child once, until the incarcerated father withdrew his consent, although later the child was successfully adopted by the new husband.

The grandparents in this case were the adoptive parents of the child's biological father. They asserted that from the time of the child's birth until approximately four years later, they had been allowed regular contact and involvement with the minor child, although the parties disputed the extent of and the reasons for the grandparents' involvement. According to the grandparents, the mother began limiting the grandparents' contact with the child after the father withdrew his consent to the new husband's adoption.

Among many other allegations, the mother contended that the grandparents did not have "standing" to bring suit-that is, did not have a legal right to bring the suit under the law- because they did not meet the definition of "grandparent" used in the Grandparent Visitation Statute.

What was the definition of "grandparent"?

The statute defined grandparents as: (1) a biological grandparent; (2) the spouse of a biological grandparent; or (3) a parent of an adoptive parent. However, the grandparents in this case were the adoptive parents of the biological father-a situation not specifically covered in the definition of the statute, since the grandparents had no biological connection to the minor child. In response to the mother's allegations, the grandparents asserted that they should fall within the statutory definition of "grandparent" by reason of common sense, logic, and constitutional considerations.

The court felt that the definition was unambiguous. The introductory clause of the statute used the phrase "includes, but is not limited to" before listing the three categories, which clearly showed the Legislature's intent not to limit the statutory definition of "grandparent" to only the three listed categories.

In addition, the statutory definition of grandparent included two categories that did not require proof of a biological relationship with the child. The grandmother, as the adoptive parent of the minor child's biological father, and the grandfather, as the stepparent of the minor child's biological father, qualified as "grandparents" under the expansive definition used in the statute. Thus, the grandparents did have standing to petition the court for visitation.